This well-Chosen collection of 24 short stories contains some of the best writing in English that has emerged from India in the recent past. Several of these stories have appeared in various collections, anthologies and journals in India and abroad. Thought written in English “the tempo of Indian life” as Raja Rao says, “is beautifully infused into the English expression.” The style though distinctive in each story, is markedly Indian, and reveals the writers’ rootedness in contemporary Indian reality.
Shiv K. Kumar (b. 1921, Lahore), is a literary critic, poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright and translator. He received his doctorate in English Literature from Cambridge. He was chairman of the Department of English at Osmania University and subsequently Professor of English and Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the Central University of Hyderabad from where he retired as its Vice Chancellor.
He has to his credit 12 collection of poems Articulate Silences, woolgathering, Woodpeckers, Trapfalls in the Sky, Cobwebs in the Sun, Subterfuges, Thus Spake the Buddha, Thus Spake Lord Krishna, Voice of the Buddha, Losing My Way, Intizar (Urdu & Hindi) and Tum Kaho Mein Sunoo (Urdu & Hindi) etc. Several of his poems have been broadcast over the BBC. He is also the author of 5 novels The Bone’s Prayer, Nude Before God, A River with Three Banks, Infatuation and the most recently published Two Mirrors at the Ashram. He has authored 2 collections of short stories Beyond Love and other stories, one play The Last Wedding Anniversary and a translation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. His research papers have appeared in such internationally known journals as Modern Language Review, Notes and Quaries, Modern Philology, journal of Art and Aesthetics, English Studies and Toronto Review of English Studies.
In 1978, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literary (London), and in 1987 he received the Sahitya Akademi award for his collection of poems Trapfalls in the Sky. In 2001 he was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2001 for his contribution of literature.
The Indian short story in English, though a late-comer on the literary scene, exhibits an astonishing range of subject matter and a wide variety of techniques. Though often considered a derivative of its western counterpart, it is not a hot-house plant but manifests a striking resemblance in its genius to the story written in any Indian language. No wonder. our literary historians trace its genesis to ancient Indian classics like the Panchatantra, the fables of Brihatkatha Kathasaritsagar or Yoga-Vashistha. These ancient stories for the most part conform in their structure to the Aristotelian prescription-an incisive beginning, middle and end-with their story-line suggestive of a palpable moral. Their plots are not elliptical or metaphoric. as defined by critics like Suzanne Ferguson. Their primary impulsion is didactic: their endeavour is to instruct rather than entertain.
The short story, written in the Indian languages, acquiring the form of a distinct literary genre, however, emerged only in the quarter of the nineteenth century. It was mostly influenced by Western writers, British or American. If, for instance. Bankimchandra Chatterjee could be said to have been influenced by Sir Walter Scott. Rabindranath Tagore could be found susceptible to the influence of his own favourite British writers. In fact, before the end of the century, most short fiction written in the Indian languages, particularly in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali or Tamil, carried the impress of such masters as Chekhov. Tolstoy. Maupassant. O'Henry or Kipling, It is not surprising, therefore, that the early short story, written in English or any Indian language, kept close to the formulistic in design, hardly ever delving deep into the character's psyche. The entire structure was patently conditioned by the author's own penchant-moral, religious, sociological or political. Consequently, it groaned under such constraints as would not allow the characters to breathe freely. Further, the author's concern with consistency kept his characters always on the leash, and within the restrictive range of the story-line. The result was that the story read more like an 'argument' than an 'impression'- to use Thomas Hardy's terms to emphasize the impressionistic freedom of a genuine work of art which, incidentally, his own work lacked.
So the early short story, whether written in English or any Indian language, grew under Western tutelage. The only difference was that while the writer in the Indian language breathed in the Western influence as a part of the zeitgeist, the writer in English was ostensibly conscious of his indebtedness to the Western masters. "There was the impact on me of Maupassant, Frank O'Connor and Theodore Powys," observes Mulk Raj Anand, one of the pioneers of this art. Similarly, one may trace the influence of Chekhov on R.K. Narayan, or of the French masters on Raja Rao. But one must hasten to add that although this distinguished triumvirate-Anand, Narayan and Rao-had used a foreign medium for creative expression, and often displayed Western technical virtuosity in their craft, their innate genius never felt smothered. If Tagore wrote as a folk story-teller, never refracting the psychology of his characters to suit a Western audience, Mulk Raj Anand remained firmly committed to social reality, investing his coolies and untouchables with a vibrant humanily that he found lacking in the upper classes. As for Raja Rao, he shaped the English language to suit the Indian sensibility, investing it with a fluidity and suppleness that was foreign to it. In his Foreword to Kanihapura; he brilliantly expounds his concept of what might be called Indian-English, and the Indian 'tempo':
"One has to convey in a language that is not one's own the spirit that is one's own. One has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought-movement that looks maltreated in an alien language. I use the word 'alien'. yet English is not really an alien language to us. It is the language of our intellectual make-up-like Sanskrit or Persian was before-but not of our emotional make-up. We are all instinctively bilingual, many of us writing in our own language and in English. We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as part of us. Our method of expression therefore has to be a dialect which will some day prove to be as distinctive and colourful as the Irish or the American. Time alone will justify it.”
Raja Rao then proceeds to discuss the problem of style. "The tempo of Indian life must be infused into our English expression, even as the tempo of American or Irish life has gone into the making of theirs. We, in India, think quickly, and when we move we move quickly. There must be something in the sun of India that makes us rush and tumble and run on.”
This accounts for the fluid style in his story 'India-A Fable', the folklorish run-on speech rhythms in Mulk Raj Anand's story The Liar', and the limpid flow of sentences in RK. Narayan's 'Green Sari'. These writers have tried to capture what may be termed the parole interieur of their characters, their stream of consciousness-its ebb and flow, its mobile lines and contours, its teasing ambiguities- using a style that is markedly Indian.
There are several other Indian writers, specially the younger ones, who have handled this foreign medium with the same felicity and distinction- as any British writer. If they have been published by such prestigious Western periodicals as the New Yorker, London Magazine or Malahat Review-or broadcast over the BBC. London-it is not for their Indian-English, sometimes called a linguistic curiosity, but for their creative use of the English language as their own Western counterparts. However, their writing is sometimes marred by a temptation to imitate the Western narrative style with its heavy leaning on irony, paradox, and even flippancy.
That is why when one compares the contemporary short story written in an Indian language with the so-called Indo- Anglian short story, one cannot often help noticing in the former a greater measure of authenticity, of native glow, of approximation to reality. Is it because the writer in English subconsciously feels that his creativity has been somewhat impoverished by his use of a foreign medium? Or is it because he often feels tempted to play up to his Western readers to seek international recognition, or sell his literary wares in the world market? Obviously, the writer in an Indian language is not swayed by any such aspirations. But not all short fiction in English is inhibited by such extraneous considerations.
It is encouraging that some of our younger writers, who are comparatively unknown, manifest a refreshing urge to seize reality 'with the least possible shrinkage' (to borrow a phrase from Marcel Proust). While they display ample technical virtuosity, they also impress their readers with an unprecedented aplomb and spunk in confronting experience in all its multiplicity. Their treatment of sex is bold and their comment on the contemporary human condition is incisive and unrelenting. At a national conference organised by the Sahitya Akademi in February, 1986, Raja Rao, the renowned Vedantin fiction-writer, took his audience by surprise when he exhorted the new writer in India to recognise the imperative validity of physical relationship between man and woman. Why should we continue to feel inhibited by orthodox morality, spinning around ourselves a cocoon of hypocrisies and self-denials? It is this freedom that one now encounters in some of our new writers. Take, for instance, Anita Mehta's story "Letters /A, 5 and 6," which presents an ingenious montage of snippets from the letters written by the protagonist's lovers, each of whom being imprisoned within the confines of his ego, never touches the quick of her inner being. "Images always accompanied her memories of him-she thought of ghazals, and how she'd grown to love them when she'd realized that they'd made his loneliness come alive, epitomized his bitterness at her many deviations=-of his face when they made love. the violence that almost attracted her because she couldn't conceive (in the confines of her all-too-fine intellect) of something so raw and whole, the way he always made as if to strangle her after the act of love (because, as he said, he was always reminded, and reminded uncontrollably much, of those who had done and would do the same to her), the way in which she was never quite sure if this wasn't just a bit theatrical and always thought not in the end because he was the least contrived person she had met-of the hard lonely set of his face, his stoic gait, one that unhappiness, she'd thought flippantly, always .suited more than the lack of it. Life, rather than art with' all that implied. The richness in knowing that all gestures, all words, were meant, weren't derived, out of a film or novel, and correspondingly the frustratingly complete unawareness in him of all the classics! You could be 5's complement, she thought dismally. "
It's obvious that Anita Mehta has, like Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, tried to isolate a subtle moment of experience and transmit it to the reader with all its multiple nuances-e- boldly and candidly. No compromise here with social constraints-its all transparent authenticity. Such is the stuff that true art is made of. So haven't we travelled far beyond the regimented Aristotelian structure of the early Indian short story?
Or take Ajoy Sen's story, "If it were not for the Child", which seems to embody a tenuous emotion, transient but throbbing with a rare vitality. Here we encounter a woman ambushed by her anguish, seeking release through the touch of a cobra who awaits her, in his deep, dark hole in the garden, almost like a lover. But the climatic moment in the story is skilfully shorn of anything that would savour of melodrama-nor is there any palpable suggestion of the Lawrentian sexual symbolism. In fact, the story just trails off into an awareness of imminent death, offering the woman the promise of an easy, blissful passage into oblivion.
"The soft tufts of thin blades slid smoothly beneath your pudgy palms and soon the agony was replaced by a strange bliss, because your fingers had at last come on the hole. You leaned over and put your ear to it but could hear nothing because snakes do not sing. Which was a pity because somehow you felt that a beautiful snake ought to. So next you put all your fingers into the hole and shivered and recalled the odd husky tone of Joel the gardener. 'One kiss from the devil does it.' You waited, shivered with the throbs of an ultimate bliss and looked up at the starry sky. A feathery cloud drifted by, parting the milky way into two luminous patches. They were like a pair of glazed, anxious faces that had magically, come together, gasping at you, fuced in an awkward huddle."
So this is how it all ends, not with a flourish, but with a whisper that is almost a caress, a beckoning into the life beyond, without any fretting and fuming over what is left behind.
Our women writers seem to have lent a new dimension of sensitivity and perception to the short story in English. They find its limited canvas quite congenial to their sensibilities in confronting their brief. often muted, experiences. They prefer to say a thing or two, and then let the rest fade away into silence. There, is for instance, Dina Mehta, whose story, "Absolution", eddies around a fragile, almost veiled, emotion of jealousy. Nor does Nayantara Sahgal allow her protagonist in "Martand" to speak out her heart. She just seems to flicker between her fidelity to her husband and her irrepressible heartache for the other man, the doctor, who is committed to the alleviation of human pain. "There was that untouched innocence about Martand, a purity without which I could no longer live. That was why I couldn't give him up, however long we had to wait for this to work out. There was so little time to talk about personal problems, and when we were alone together we did not talk." Indeed, the spoken word is such a futile instrument of communication in a woman's world, since it's often the language of knitted eye-brows, suppressed sighs, deep pauses and dazed looks that does it.
That is the way most of our women writers tend to respond to reality-with reticence, quietude and fortitude. Maybe there is something masochistic about their attitude. Take, for instance, Sunita Jain's "Heavy is Gold" in which a young woman allows herself to be married off to a widower 'twice her age'.
But there is also the New Indian woman-the bold, fearless creature who will not yield to social pressures, who will rather break than bend. Consider, for example, Raji Narasimhan's story "A Toast to Herself' which is her little testament of freedom. She would like her women to be 'forever free' (the title of one of her novels). If Virginia Woolf could ask for a 'Room of Her Own', so would Narasimhan let her women work out their destiny. Such a woman is Priya in "A Toast to Herself." who boldly resists her mother's persistent solicitations to get married and settle down to a secure life. On the contrary, she is determined to carve out a career for herself as a writer. Raji Narasimhan even slyly pokes fun at the popular notion of male superiority. She presents Pnya's lover, Dr. Kesavan, as something of a dumbkopf, quite insensitive to creative writing. When he asks her to show him some of her writings, she wonders whether he will understand anything in them.
"The dumbkopf should never have known what to make of them. He didn't really know English even though he spoke it. She was afraid, suddenly. What if he quizzed her? What if he got out of her those little secrets about writing that formed from the duplicities of making art from life."
The Indian short story in English is, indeed, a many- splendoured-thing-its amplitude is amazing. It covers almost every aspect of Indian experience. If Manoj Das's fiction is preoccupied with the break-up of our feudal society after Independence ("The Submerged Valley"), Keki Daruwalla evokes in his story, "The Jahangir Syndrome", the pre-Independence scene of our tea-plantations with their paradoxes-love-hate, violence-peace, etc. Chaman Nahal's story, "The Womb" represents our perennial preoccupation with death. The protagonist. Lala Ram Prashad, vividly portrayed against his genealogical backdrop, longs for his mother's womb as he is carried from one room to another of his ancestral house. And there's Jayanta Mahapatra, one of our leading poets writin in English, whose stories seem to be poised on the borderline between fantasy and reality. His story, "Eyes", presents a woman with failing eyesight causing her husband endless anguish that no words can possibly articulate.
"True that I didn't want to look into her face with my stupidly lyrical half-smile which merely served to frame an inner embarrassment. And I realized that my controlled expression was breaking down."
"Do the weak ones like me merely move on, with their games of silence?"
Mahapatra's forte, both as poet and story-teller, lies in his capability to explore those grey areas of pain which always remain intractable to verbalisation. He would rather prefer to use the language of gesture, of inner commitment, of "quiet quiescence."
If the short story in English kept a low profile till the first half of this century, it emerged as a popular literary genre in the mid-eighties-thanks to the patronage of Doordarshan with its millions of Viewers. This government organisation is now treating its mammoth audience to dramatisation of stories by our celebrated writers like R.I. Narayan (now known for his 'Malgudl Days') and Satyajit Ray. Such T.V. programmes as "Ek Kahani" and "Katha Sagar" have encouraged our new writers to take to the short story as an exciting form of writing. No wonder, the Indira Gandhi National Open University too has launched a course in creative writing with an emphasis on the short story.
Finally, a word about this anthology. It is notorious that every editor is conditioned by his subjective responses, and I am no exception. Maybe I have been guilty, however unwittingly, of leaving out some talented writers-or maybe, I should have chosen stories more representative of their authors. I should only like to say that in making this selection, my primary concern has been to offer my readers as wide a spectrum of the Indian experience as possible. And in introducing some younger writers, my intention has been to show how this genre is attracting new talent which augurs well for its future.
I should be failing in my duty if I don't acknowledge my indebtedness to the Librarian, Shri L.S. Ramaiah, of the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages. Hyderabad, who not only let me browse among his stacks, but has also offered several invaluable suggestions. To my wife, Madhu, I am grateful for her constant help and guidance.
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